About Miracles

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Last night for the first time, I hit a safety boundary while I was out walking.  Past the small park I’m so fond of, in a dark part of the street, I saw that I was closing in on a man that looked pretty shabby and was weaving as he walked ahead of me.  I was going at a fast clip and as I got close to him, realized he was leaving a trail of alcohol breath in his wake.  My first instinct was to try to go past him and then I realized how foolish that would be.  I turned around and headed back home, did an extra turn to complete my mileage.

I had been listening to a lively conversation between Krista Tippett and Kate Braestrup.  Kate Braestrup is a chaplain with the game wardens of Maine.  She wrote a beautiful memoir called There If You Need Me.   She quotes Tibetan Buddhism and says that how we live our lives is the way we practice for death; her book gave me a glimpse of what good practice looks like.  What I learned from her several years ago helped me walk with my mom all the way to the crematorium and then to the Rio Caldera where we scattered her ashes.  I was delighted to find this interview.

Last night, some of what she and Krista Tippett discussed converged with two conversations I’ve had in the past couple of days so what had seemed stagnant and turbid in my mind turned swift and clear and energizing.

In There If You Need Me, Braestrup tells a wrenching story about Christina, a young woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time early one morning and was abducted, raped, and murdered before being buried in the woods.  As chaplain, Braestrup was actively involved in the events that unfolded over the next 3 days as a team of law enforcement folks worked feverishly to piece together what had happened, hoping against hope that they would find Christina alive.  Braestrup is so elegant and eloquent in her description of the miracle of people who do this work, observing that although they all hope that there will be happy endings and in fact, sometimes there are, many times the best they can do is find the body.  Braestrup describes beautifully the willingness of people who have this vocation to do what must be done, even knowing that most of the time they are not “superheroes” in any way, sort or fashion, but rather must confront the worst of evil, and still do their work with love and dedication.

In Christina’s case, this was true.  The person in charge of the investigation was a young woman detective named Anna Love (her real name—she changed most of the names of other people she portrayed in her memoir to protect their privacy but got Love’s permission because the name was part of the beauty of the story).  Braestrup and Tippett  marveled together at the intelligence, intensity and determination of Anna to crack the case, and how remarkable it was that Love pieced it all together so that within three days, the perpetrator was leading her and the rest of the investigation team to the site where he had buried Christina.  What made Love’s work so poignant was that all through those three days, she had to stop regularly and find an empty, private space where she could use a breast pump to send bottles of milk home for her newborn child.  Braestrup summarized all that in one exquisite sentence:  “a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death”.

My friend Robin is discerning how to respond faithfully to the congregation she serves out in the countryside of Ohio, a congregation that, like so many others in the mainline denominations, is in decline.  In response, a group of us have been exploring with each other the grace of hospice not only at the individual level but at a collective level as well.  Our denominations put superhuman effort into “church revitalization” and celebrate the heroes that turn congregations around.  Their work is worth extolling with joy.  But I am convinced that the kindness with which Robin is exploring alternatives to that approach bears consideration.

My own ministry has taken an unexpected turn.  For those of you who follow this blog with any regularity, you may remember that a several months ago we faced an enormously serious financial crisis of such proportions that I relinquished my salary.  Right before Christmas, the story took two unexpected turns and just like that, just like magic, we were back on more solid financial ground.  The slogging, painful work of improving our fiscal responsibility and accountability, work that a handful of people had done over the summer, will shape the future of this regional ministry for many years to come.  But much more immediately, we very unexpectedly regained much of what had been lost. The two pieces that came together as Christmas approached were more magical in some respects and therefore, more illusory and fleeting.

There was certainly a sense of reaffirmation that this ministry is well worth doing.  At the same time, embedded in all the “yeses”, some of them fantastic, some of them remarkable for the commitment and dedication they enfleshed, is also the  “unchanged fact of death” at least for me and the ministry I had hoped to facilitate.  Pieces of the more innovative aspects of a regional approach to ministry have given way to the practical necessities of survival for the institution I am a part of in this time and this place.  Though we will continue to make a difference for a long time to come I think, I am not going to get to do some of the edgy work I had been anticipating with great joy.

I am not one of the superheroes.  And I suspect that many, if not most, of the priests and pastors I know, love and respect, don’t get to be superheroes either.  A lot of the time, our work will be to carry on, aware that the story will probably not be one about astonishing turn-around and transformation; we will accompany communities through the valley of the shadow of death.  What runs swift and clear and true for me today is the certainty that if we practice; in other words, if we live our faith as authentically as possible, if we are mindful and observant and if we make ourselves available (si nos entregamos, as one would say in Spanish), maybe we can be so fortunate as Kate Braestrup and bear witness to the miracle of “the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death”.

A Word for 2013

Camino Real Francés

Camino Real Francés

Around my blogosphere circle, there have been some interesting discussions about choosing a word, a character trait, a virtue, as your own special word for the year.  Someone likened it to a star to follow.  Others have described it as a key for prayer and reflection, a way of bringing some focus to faith and growth.  I didn’t pay much attention, I must admit.  I’ve been busy, I continue to slowly but surely catch up on all the things that I fell behind on as I got through the hard days of the end of the year.  It’s not that I want to dismiss something as faddish or think it’s a trend to avoid.  It just wasn’t something that called me in any way.

Today I pushed myself.  I pushed myself pretty hard with the walking.  One of the  nice things about inhabiting my life now is I recognize a lot more parts of myself that I used to ignore.  One of them is how competitive I am.  I don’t say that out loud much, but it’s the truth.  My favorite way of dealing with competitions, especially as I learned about it with my uber-competitive older brother, was by bowing out, not finishing, or not even playing.  Signing up for this half-marathon walk has meant accepting that I am anxious not that I won’t walk the full distance but that it might take me too long to win the medal-thing they apparently give you if you complete it in under four hours.  I started out to increase my distance when I set my route for today.

But at 6:30 this morning, when I began to actually walk, the nagging anxiety had the chorus of itty-bitty-s&*^%y little voices getting me good and worked up so I thought, what the heck.  I am going to push myself.  If I get into a comfortable stride I’m going to try a little harder–not too much, but I’m going to try.  And then, when it was clear at 8 miles that even with a good pace, I still had strength left, I pushed a little more and altered my route enough to put in the full 9 miles.

Sometime about the time I had come off the 17th Street Causeway, a word began insinuating itself to me.  I had not been listening to any music, and wasn’t aware of thinking much of anything but this word formed inside my head, persistent and insistent.  Endurance.  Yes, I thought, I am building endurance.  From there, I thought, I need to look up the etymology of this word.  With lots of time on my hands I broke it down in my head.  En-dure-ance.  Right there in the middle is the key–dure. In Spanish, the word for hard is duro.  I imagined it was derived from something like dure and endurance is related to hardened.

Over and over, the word tumbled in my mind and with it all kinds of associations.  I wish endurance wasn’t related to being hardened. But the truth is, this year has hardened me.  When I stand and touch one of my legs, it feels like steel now.  I like that and I don’t.  I have a lower tolerance for games people play and my own.  I am less sentimental.  Les Miserable was cloying to me.  Give me some asperity any day.  Endurance tumbled this way and that. I remembered the prayer I wrote about in this post with that beautiful line, “Bring me the courage to endure what cannot be avoided for your will for us is health and wholeness”.  I have no idea how long I spent on this, and then, as if all along, there’d been a sifting, a process of discernment, I started thinking about El Camino de Santiago, that amazing pilgrimage pathway in Spain.

One of the last wonderful conversations I got to have with my friend Michael before he died was about his pilgrimage.  I remember him telling me about choosing boots carefully, trying dozens on before he found a pair that almost immediately felt comfortable, and how he put vaseline on his feet every day and never once got a blister.  But it was the journey to his own heart that I was so privileged to get to hear about.  As he told the story, I thought to myself–I would love to make that pilgrimage.  But by then, my hip was so riddled with arthritis (and I was so overweight) it was nothing more than wishful thinking.  I first began to really push myself in Gloucester last year (and it is precisely one year since I arrived at Eastern Point Retreat Center) and I was aware that all my walks were pilgrimages of a sort.

When I had walked for 9 miles today, in the light drizzle that went with me most of the way, when I made some mental notes about some training I need to put in place for myself for the hill-walking that will be involved in Birmingham, it was so clear as well that if there is a chance for me to do El Camino de Santiago, it will be because of my growing endurance.  And just like that, it had become my word for 2013.  I came back home and did some of that etymological research I had started.  Here’s a first, quick pass on endure, the root of endurance:

Endure: early 14c., “to undergo or suffer” (especially without breaking); late 14c. “to continue in existence,” from Old French endurer (12c.) “make hard, harden; bear, tolerate; keep up, maintain,” from Latin indurare “make hard,” in Late Latin “harden (the heart) against,” from in- (see in- (2)) + durare “to harden,” from durus “hard,” from PIE *deru- “be firm, solid.” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=endure).

A good word, that.  Certainly one that tells a lot about my life these days.

Then I went pecking for El Camino.  If you take the French path, the pilgrimage is almost 800 kilometers long.  If I were able to walk 9-10 miles a day, and accounting for the unaccountable, give it 6-8 weeks.  This is probably totally crazy, but I am going to start looking for sabbatical grants.  I have been in ministry for over 10 years now and the thought of doing this as my sabbatical, maybe even this year, fills me with great joy.  A whole lot else would have to fall into place.  But yes.  Endurance.  That is the word for 2013…

Of More Walking and Some Flying

fort-lauderdale-beachI have to walk at least 8 miles tomorrow as part of my training for the half marathon. There is a website called mapmywalk.com that allows me to plan out a course to accomplish that goal. Tomorrow, I will start from All Saints again, go across to the beach and over three bridges. This time, I will go a bit further north before heading back to my starting point. This is my route.

I’m definitely liking this planning and preparation stuff–until now my rambles have been just that: sort-of random. I kept increasing my distance until I plateaued at 6 miles, mainly because 2 hours a night is a reasonable amount of time for a workout. Now I am paying attention to pace and studying all this other stuff. This week I have to figure out what clothes I’ll need to wear. I’m hoping for some cool days between now and February 17th because it will undoubtedly be cooler in Birmingham than here and I need to train in what I will wear. I’ve been training in some Merrell Moab walking shoes which are pretty comfortable. If anyone has a different recommendation–speak now or forever hold your peace. What I have by next Saturday is what I will need to use.

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Meanwhile, as I write, my husband is doing his daily workout. Working his remote-control helicopter (hovering just to the right of my laptop) with which he terrorizes Spot, Daisy and me. He tells me the laughter is good exercise for him. And that the running is good for Spot and Daisy. I’m not sure my cussing does much for any of us, but really, I’m very amused…

Update 1/5: I walked 9 miles at a pace of 15’17″/mile or 3.9 mph. That totally rocks for me!!!

Almost Epiphany

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The magi are close now, just two more days.  My mom gave me this crèche years ago and when I got it back then,I put it away so well that I never saw it again until I found it this fall.  It is a rather lovely set, hand carved in Perú.  It has been a gentle kindness for me all through these past weeks, filled with meaning and memories–the only Christmas decoration left in the house (not that there were more than a handful to begin with).  The Christmas lights are also beginning to come down around the neighborhood and I came across lots of discarded Christmas trees last night.  I’m getting through a cold and still don’t feel great, though I’m also relieved that this particular time of the year is almost behind me.

We got through it. More than that, really.  I made a point of not pretending.  When I needed to be sad, I just was.  There were some absolutely magical moments with María, unexpectedly. Sherod got her an electronic photo frame and loaded it with about 200 pictures extending back to when we first met our girl in México.  On Christmas Day, María was quite dismissive of her gifts, disappointed though I am not sure what it was she wanted.  After being with us for about 10 minutes she informed us that it was time for us to leave.  We’ve learned not to take that personally and headed back home.  But the next morning, she called up bubbling with joy and wonder, describing one picture after another, telling us she’d woken up several times in the night to look at the pictures scrolling in her frame.  It’s not the first time we’ve been able to give María her history and an honor that is…

My ever so dear friends Charles and Tom, who moved away from Ft Lauderdale several years ago, dropped by for surprise visit on Saturday–I was out walking over the 17th Street Causeway when I checked my Facebook page and there was a  message from them.  New insight:  it is great to get good news on top of a workout-induced endorphin high… I had enough advance notice to prepare some coffee and get some nice pastries, took out some of the nice china and silver, and was glad for the opportunity to have them at home with us.  Christmas has always meant having the house full of people and this visit was what felt bearable this year.

Now, it feels like there is nothing but busy and that too is good.  Today is my day off and we are ready to take a new step with our girl that is a bit scary and very hopeful.  I am going to pick her up by myself early this afternoon and she and I are going to see Les Miserable together.  The folks at BARC are primed, I will have their number on speed dial, and we’re going to a theater close to them, in case anything goes wrong and I need help.  But the fact that we could plan this is progress.   Maybe all the crying everyone tells me accompanies this movie will help clear out my sinuses :-).

I inhabit a full and complex life these days and for that I am grateful.